Hello, citizens of Athens. My name is Paul, and I am a traveler visiting your lovely city. Thank you for giving me time to speak at this Areopagus, this hill of Ares, where your council meets, and where you can look just up the hill to the temple of Athena. You are indeed a people who surround yourselves with your gods. I am so impressed by all the statues of gods you have everywhere. I could buy statuettes of these gods made out of silver, gold, or stone, take them home and set up my own shrines to worship these gods. Your craftspeople must make a good living by fashioning these gods and selling them in the marketplace.
So those craftspeople are not going to want to hear that this isn’t actually how the whole god thing works. You see, there is just the one God, God who made all of creation. God doesn’t need little statues in order to exist. God doesn’t depend on us in order to be. God doesn’t live in these statues, and we don’t control God by worshiping these human-made objects.
In my Jewish tradition, some people think God lives only up in the heavens, or on the mountaintops. God is up. Some people may have an image of God as an old man with a robe and long, flowing beard, standing on a cloud and controlling things from afar. This is the concept of God as some supernatural human-type being. You could call this “supernatural theism,” from theos, your Greek word for God.
The God I want to share with you today isn’t embodied in a statue, isn’t an old guy on a cloud. This is the God in whom we “live and move and have our being.” Think of this God more as a life force that inhabits all of creation. This God created everything, and everything lives within God. You might call this pantheism, pan meaning “all” and theism again coming from the word for God. In the concept of pantheism, everything is God.
But I want to go one step further. Let’s talk about panENtheism, pan “all,” en “in,” theism or theos, God: all in God. God created and continues to create everything. God is in everything—or rather, everything is in God. God is imminent, in us, present, a part of each breath we take, each heartbeat. Each one of us comes from God, is a child of God, and lives our whole life span held in God. God is both imminent—right here in us—and transcendent—beyond everything that exists.
There is a story in my Jewish tradition in which our forefather Moses encounters God in a bush that burns but is not consumed. During the course of conversation, Moses asks God’s name. God replies, “Yahweh,” which in Hebrew means “I am what I am,” or, since there is no tense implied, “I was what I was,” or “I will be what I will be.” God is that life force, that “isness” that continues throughout all time. God is the ground of all being, the source of all life.
This panentheistic concept of God has two implications. First, you are never alone. Even if you retreat from the world and live by yourself for months on end, you are not alone, because God is with you. God is with and in you and all around you. You are in God. You remain connected to the great “I am.” And when people fall ill and die with no one else present, they do not die alone. I once met a man who knew he had very little time left to live. He said, “I am not afraid to die, because I know that I die into God. I die into the source of love and life that created me, that loves, that welcomes me.” So if we live and move and have our being in God, we are never disconnected from God. God does not abandon us.
The second implication of a panentheistic God is that we are all connected. There is no “us” and “them.” We are all one in God. We ignore this to our peril. When we say that those experiencing homelessness or mental illness or physical illness or old age or lack of education—when we say that these people are less than us, that they are disposable, not worth our time or energy or love—we are throwing away a part of ourselves, a part of God. When we reject or mistreat or even kill people who do not look like us or who come from far away, we disrespect a part of God, and we deny ourselves the opportunity to find what is kindred in these fellow children of God. God doesn’t reject anyone; who do we think we are to do so?
We are all connected. We are reminded of this when illness sweeps through the community. Those whom we would disregard can make all of us ill if we do not make sure they are given adequate places to shelter and adequate access to care. If we think they do not deserve health care, we may pay the price when we ourselves catch what they have. We are all one.
We are connected not only to all humans but to all of creation: the water, air, earth, plants, animals. When we abuse these sacred parts of creation, when we dominate them rather than caring for them, everything gets out of balance. But when we pay attention, when we love all of creation and live tenderly with it, we respect God the creator and the oneness of creation.
So we welcome the stranger, care for the poor and the sick, practice awe and gratitude and compassion. This is how we are in relationship with God, who made us, who loves us, who never leaves us. We do not need cold stone statues. We do not need to worship the other gods either: the gods of wealth, or comfort, or security, or fame, or power. We need the God who created us and who continues to connect with us. May we tap into that life source so full of love and be a blessing to all, always. Amen.